From smear to Eternity
Presumably Arthur sought permission only from his Maker to go about his street art
Here’s a subject on which it’s difficult to steer a middle course — street art. I’m not one to insist that all art must fit in a frame, but I don’t hold that every squiggle, smear or “tag” on a wall or train seat constitutes must-be-nurtured creative endeavour. There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain, but ever heard of the word vandalism?
I should declare my interest as a one-time resident of inner Sydney’s Darlinghurst, with a wall bordering a laneway; every night a new “work of art”. I’m for anything done by consent, but I guess the concept of permission is scorned by the revolutionary. And, yes, I’d have a different view had Banksy ever chanced on my wall.
Thoughts on this have been stirred by a new Lonely Planet publication, Street Art: Discover street art in 140 hot spots in 42 cities worldwide. It displays some wonderful works in dizzying locations (not always executed according to health and safety best practice), but they are mostly contemporary and not historic. Mentioned but not pictured in Berlin, for example, are the remnants of the Wall, festooned on the western side by freedom graffiti.
The guide selects Adelaide (“Radelaide”), Melbourne and Perth as Aussie “hot spots” and I won’t quibble with that, but I have a few of my own. Off the City Mall in Ipswich, Queensland, search out the Bottle Alley Mural, conceived by artist Julie Maddock and painted with help from the community; it tells the history of the city through old bottles. And in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, I love the murals on the pylons of the Eastern Suburbs railway viaduct, which capture the defiant spirit of the 1970s green bans that saved the historic area from redevelopment. In Woy Woy, on the NSW central coast, a wall bordering a laneway between a commuter car park and the railway station carries a gritty mural of faces. The work of the Gosford Graffiti Art Project, it references John Brack’s picture of workers trudging home, Collins St, 5pm.
The wall is that of a (sadly now-closed) butcher shop, which has a sign in elegant window-display writing declaring, “We stock pickled ox tongue”. For some tables perhaps, just not mine. I was always surprised a butcher’s hand that could hack to the bone could also produce flowery sign-writing and remember from youth the exquisite characters of one shop’s warning, “No loitering or expectorating”. I didn’t know what that last word meant and conjured up a lurid act before I could get to a dictionary. But why would you do that in a shop?
The path of exquisite calligraphy leads to Arthur Stace, the alcoholic who found God at the Burton Street Tabernacle in Darlinghurst and whose inspired mission was to write “Eternity” in chalk on pavements across Sydney for 30 years from the 1930s. Presumably Arthur sought permission only from his Maker to go about his street art, commemorated in fireworks on the Harbour Bridge in the first seconds of the 21st century. No matter what your beliefs it’d be a brave person to confront him, but the city council custodians of clean footpaths did. I shudder to think where they’re now spending Eternity.